BY MIKE LUCAS
Senior Writer UWBadgers.com
MADISON, Wis. – Their paths often crossed at dawn in the Wisconsin training hall – their teammates were grinding, straining and rehabilitating from injuries – hunt the wolfCincinnati’s fifth-year quarterback, and Hunter WohlerMuskego’s sophomore safety.
“Hunter was kind of doing stuff at the same time as me – he was a little ahead of me for a while – we had different schedules,” said Wolf, who was the No. 2 QB behind Graham Mertz before injuring his knee at the end of training camp and having surgery the Monday before the season opener.
“Sometimes this work in the training room gets really tough and guys like Hunter, Marty (Strey) or Tray (Travian Blaylock) would help me out when I was struggling with certain rehabilitation exercises. Every day I tried to achieve a goal. My mindset was just to get better at something.”
Overall, he says, “I had to live in the moment. At the time it happened, I wasn’t really sure about my future. For a very long time, I didn’t know what my situation – when I came back. I was locked in a splint for four weeks. I didn’t know what it was like to walk without it.
Walking walking was obviously more difficult than talking. Wohler and Wolf had their share of conversations. “And he had the same mindset as me,” Wohler said, lamenting the timing of their injuries (his happened in the season opener against Illinois State) and being out of fight in general.
“But we had to do everything we could to come back and help this team in any way we could.”
With that front and center in his thought process, Wohler had his own motivation: “It was just in my head, ‘This is the game you love. This is what you worked for. Every time you you’re feeling down, just know that when you’re ‘If you fight for it, it’s going to make you better in the end.'”
Wohler and Wolf returned to training last week and will be available for Saturday’s game against Maryland at Camp Randall. Interim Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard hopes to insert Wohler, who started the fly-half, into the safety rotation with John Torchio and Kamo’i Latu.
“Last week was huge for him. He was able to get on the pitch several times without having to play on Saturday,” Leonhard said. “He was able to get some reps, work on some things physically just to know where he is and the confidence he has in his leg, and then take a step back for a few days…
“It’s exciting when you add another element that was a productive player in your defense and really had a huge fall camp and was really excited about what he was going to do this season. Now what’s the best combination we can use?
“We’ve had great production from Kamo’i and Torch, so it’s about finding the right balance with those guys and hopefully that helps us keep them fresh and be able to shoot a bit like I traditionally do.
“I’m delighted with the prospects of having all three of them on the pitch at times.”
Wohler had three tackles in his first career start before being injured in a 38-0 loss to Illinois State. “I knew right away that something was wrong,” he said. “It didn’t feel right to me, and it obviously hurt. I didn’t think it would be such a long process. But there’s a reason for it all.”
As a freshman in high school, Wohler fractured the growth plate in his ankle. He was absent for 20 weeks. Addressing this latest rehab, he said: “Doubts have definitely crept in. But you stay the course. You trust your coaches and training staff that they will do what they can to help you.
“And then you trust yourself that you’re going to be able to regain your full strength. There’s a lot of frustrating things (not playing)…a feeling of helplessness a bit…when you can’t do anything to help the team, that whether it be games or training or anywhere in between.”
During recovery, the challenge is universal. Do not detach yourself from the team. Or teammates.
“That was the most important thing at the time I got injured — making sure I stuck with everyone, making sure I could be at every practice and every meeting,” Wohler said. “I was able to adapt my training program and my rehabilitation program around that. I didn’t want to feel detached.
“I wanted to be there with the guys going through the things they were going through.”
He pointed out, “There were a lot of other guys” going through different stages of their own rehab – whether it was Wolf or Strey or Blaylock or Aaron Witte Where Preston Zachman (one of the safeties who got more snaps immediately after Wohler’s injury before getting hurt as well).
“You come in with them every day, do your rebab with them, exercise with them,” Wohler said of the meticulous, step-by-step routine and timeline that evolved. “They keep you going every day. I’m so grateful to these guys who carried you through, even the bad days.”
His greatest support came from his family. Mom and dad. “They were awesome,” Wohler said. “They were checking me every day or two to make sure I was okay. The biggest thing that worried them was the mental side; the price it can take not doing what you love.
“They were amazing helping me in any way they could. When the guys went on the road, I came home two Friday nights and watched my sister play volleyball. It was a blessing .Just to get out of town for 24 hours and take a break from doing the same thing every day was really nice.”
His UW housemates/teammates were equally supportive: Owen Arnet and Grover Bortolotti. “They’ve been there for me the whole way,” he said. “Whenever I needed someone to talk to or help with when I couldn’t walk, they were incredibly amazing helping me in any way they could.”
Wohler was grateful. Is still. Beyond its turn. “It was probably two or three weeks ago,” he said, “when I was able to start running on an AlterG treadmill that takes the weight off your body. It was like, ‘Okay, I can do it I have I have my strength back I’m getting a little closer.
It was the backdrop to last week’s practice. Wohler couldn’t help but think, “I’m back.” ‘
There is so much comfort in those words. Just ask Wolf to turn his own corner.
“As soon as I took the knee brace off the Monday after Ohio State (Sept. 24), I was able to walk without it and felt a lot more normal,” said Wolf, who exaggerated as he dragged his leg. “I had to walk like this for weeks. I had to adjust my walking because my hips were out of alignment.”
Other than ankle sprains in high school, Wolf had never been seriously injured. “Never tore anything, never broke a bone,” he said, also falling back on his family. “My parents were amazing. They visited me after my surgery and stayed with me for a few days. They were really supportive.”
Wolf drew motivation from his sister Shaye, who tore her ACL last year while playing high school volleyball for Mount Notre Dame. But the injury did not define her. It only increased her ingenuity to return for her senior year and she ended up winning a scholarship to Florida Atlantic.
Shaye Wolf was told she would be out for six to nine months. She came back in five.
“I felt sorry for myself on the first day,” Wolf said of his own injury. “But after that I thought, ‘I have to beat her. I have to come back sooner. If she can do it, I can do it. I still compete with my sisters (Sabrina played volleyball in Cincinnati and Stevie in Xavier). She was an inspiration to me.”
Feeling detached, he said: “At first I did it because I wasn’t able to go to meetings or practice in the first week. After that, I was watching practice from there. -up (pointing to the football offices at Camp Randall) Once I was able to get further out onto the field, I felt more like I was with the team.
“Graham (Mertz) and I are doing a good job of supporting each other. All the quarterbacks have done a good job including me. I didn’t feel left out or anything. Coach Leonhard is coming into the gym every day. It keeps us involved as much as possible, so we don’t feel isolated.”
Wolf’s roommate, Mike Gregoire, a backup wide receiver, has been invaluable to his rehab. Especially given his early limitations in getting around. Former Badger security guard Collin Wilder was also involved in the operation, which took him to the hospital for his operation and picked him up. “Everyone has been great,” Wolf said.
While admitting to “feeling a little rusty” after practice on Tuesday, Wolf insisted: “I feel pretty good. My knee feels good. My arm is strong. I’m totally ready to go if I get it. must.” But what could his future in the sport look like? Could that include another season of college football?
“I think I have a sixth year available,” Wolf said. “I’m trying to think about it. I’m undecided. I have to talk with my parents and talk to the coaches and see what’s best for me. There were questions at the time (of the injury) if I should take a medical, but I never even thought about it.
“I wanted to come back as soon as possible, and I’ll figure that out later.”
Wohler realized something while in rehab. Something he already knew.
“It’s tough…it’s always the case when you get injured and you have to miss a lot more time than you would like,” he said. “But being with the guys is another opportunity to grow mentally and develop your relationships with everyone. When you’re playing, you don’t always have the opportunity to have those conversations.
“So it’s an opportunity to meet more coaches and develop your mental part of the game.
“That way, when you come back, you can put everything there.”
In his own words, “I’m back. Time to get back to work and have some fun.” Taken over by Wolf.